The Talking Point #29: Be careful what you wish for

(Title Image: BBC Wales)

The only way we’re going to see an alternative to a Labour-led government in Wales is if the opposition parties work together to remove them – that was the message coming (yet again) from the Conservatives at last week’s spring conference.

The 2017 local elections aside, there’ve been two successive flops for the Tories in Wales in national elections (for a whole host of reasons which I went into more detail here and here).

Plaid Cymru has hardly overachieved either and have made more “off the pitch” headlines when compared to those relating to anything they’ve achieved (or say they’ve achieved) in the Assembly chamber – occasionally sparking into life over issues such as Brexit or the Severn Bridge name change.

UKIP has become a joke that isn’t funny anymore.

Meanwhile, it’s difficult to decide whether the Lib Dems actually count as a significant political force in Wales at present. You can point to Kirsty Williams holding office and “making a difference” (like here), but cabinet collective responsibility has meant she’s had to vote in favour of policies she likely wouldn’t have if in opposition.

The first problem is that all of the opposition parties have a natural ceiling in their vote share at Assembly elections; the Tories lie at around 20-25%, Plaid Cymru at around 18-20% and the Lib Dems around 6-8%. Very rarely do the opposition parties get more than that and that’s going to restrict the number (and location) of where they can win seats. If they want to win more seats it could very well be easier taking them off each other, not Labour.

Secondly, there’s the electoral system itself. While it (sort of) disadvantages Labour by making it incredibly difficult for them to win a majority, it also sets a floor of (on current voting patterns) 24-26 seats which means they’ll almost always be guaranteed to be the largest party even when they have a bad year. It would take something Herculean for one of the opposition parties to win more than 20 seats under the current system – Plaid came closest in 1999, winning 17 seats off the back of a very low turnout. Any party with ambitions of forming a minority government needs at least 25 seats (and two or more opposition parties need a clear majority of seats for a stable coalition).

We’ll have to see what happens with proposed electoral reforms (such as switching to a wholly proportional electoral system), but it’s unlikely these measures will be in place before 2026 and Labour are likely to oppose any significant change to how the Senedd currently works (or obvious reasons).

Thirdly – and perhaps most importantly – there are the differing (possibly incompatible) views on what “the national interest” actually is.

When we were on the cusp of a “rainbow coalition” in 2007, it was negotiated by three mild-mannered and collegiate party leaders who were willing to compromise – Nick Bourne (Con), Ieuan Wyn Jones (Plaid) and Mike German (Lib Dems). There was no Brexit, no law-making or tax-varying powers, nor any existential threat to the Union at that time.

We would hypothetically face such an agreement in 2021 being taken forward by anti-Tory Leanne Wood, arch Brit-Nat Andrew RT Davies, whoever’s leading UKIP at the time (if they still have AMs come 2021), Kirsty Williams – whose tenure in Welsh Government will likely taint her in the eyes of the others – and possibly an Independent or two.

The stakes would be a lot higher and the powers available to them more extensive, but the chances of that group coming to an agreement to either back one minority party, or form what would inevitably be described as “A Coalition of Losers”, would make for highly unstable politics. You could easily picture a repeat of a relatively minor issue like the Severn Crossing name change bringing it down.

For such an arrangement to work, the parties would likely have to agree on an incredibly vanilla government and legislative programme (which avoids any and all controversial decisions), make significant ideological compromises, crossed-fingers all round to hope events don’t conspire to drop a bombshell or two and dealing with what’s likely to be a highly aggressive (and united) Labour opposition.

So, be careful what you wish for.

  • 17